If you happen to be in the kitchen while a good cook is at work, be sure and take good notes.
Southern Cornbread Dressing
Credit: Lee Harrelson

My mother made the best cornbread dressing ever. I would put a pan of her moist and savory dressing up against dressing cooked by the finest chef in the country, and I know without a doubt Mama's recipe would come out the winner. Mama planned her holiday cooking with the precision of a military exercise; she made a detailed list of dishes to prepare, bought the necessary groceries weeks in advance, calculated just how long it would take to thaw the turkey, and put the frozen bird in the refrigerator not a day too soon or too late. Most importantly, she cooked the cornbread for the dressing a day or two in advance so it would have time to dry out, an important element in making quality cornbread dressing.

The one thing Mama didn't do? She didn't write down her recipe. Like so many talented home cooks, my mother cooked from memory, smell, taste and touch, and although I spent many holidays by her side in the kitchen, talking through the recipe as she prepared it, I never wrote it down. Recently I ran across this Southern Living recipe for Southern Cornbread Dressing and I think it comes as close to Mama's as anything I have been able to bake up.

Food memories can transport you back to another place and time. A few weeks ago, I smelled this particular cornbread dressing baking in the Southern Living Test Kitchens and I was immediately transported back to Mama's kitchen. This version uses the same ingredients as Mama did - eggs, onion, celery, herbs, even bread crumbs (she usually used a leftover biscuit or two). The method and the components for this recipe are just like Mama's, so the texture and taste is the same…well, almost.

This recipe resembles Mama's not just in taste and texture but in quantity – it makes a LOT. We have a large family that grew even bigger over the years with the addition of in-laws, grandchildren, and great-grands. Mama finally resorted to baking a double recipe of cornbread dressing in a large, blue-speckled roasting pan. You don't have to use a roasting pan for this recipe, but you will need a 13- x 9-inch baking dish and an 8-inch square baking dish. Bake both if you are having a crowd for the holidays, otherwise just bake one and freeze one for another meal.

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Everyone has a memory of a favorite dish that reminds them of home. If you happen to be in the kitchen this season while that recipe is being prepared, grab a pen and paper and jot down the recipe.